R. O. KAPP - A NEGLECTED SCIENTIST AND PHILOSOPHER
by Ronald R. Cretchley
I read David Thompsett’s contribution to last-year’s Review: ‘What is attracting mass?’ with combined feelings of surprise, excitement, and gratitude. That Reginald Kapp’s Towards a Unified Cosmology should be, in Thompsett’s words, both ‘an iconoclastic book and a neglected book’ must surely be cause for enquiry.
That a man of such originality and wide-ranging thought should have suffered such neglect is to me a matter of considerable puzzlement that has grown over the years since I first became acquainted with his writing in the mid-fifties.
I intend to redress this neglect by bringing to light some of his ideas, together with the main thrust of some of his arguments. He was something of a polymath. Besides being a prominent electrical engineer his writing also embraced physics, cosmology, and biology. It is a daunting task, therefore, to attempt a digest of even a part of his work.
2. First acquaintance with Kapp’s work. and the Occam Society
Before embarking upon this task I should like to put this contribution in its personal context. During the fifties, whilst working as a research scientist in Canada, I walked into a bookshop in Toronto one day and chanced upon a slim volume entitled Mind, Life and Body by Reginald Otto Kapp. This book has made a lasting impression upon me, and I believe its main premise to be relevant today.
On my return to this country in 1958 I learned of the formation by Reginald Kapp of the Occam Society which I joined in January of 1960. Its prime aim was ‘to explore those principles of science that have universal validity with a view to integrate science in the face of its increasing fragmentation.’
It was Kapp’s wish to elevate Occam’s razor to the status of a universal principle. Rather than merely a rule of procedure, namely ‘when more than one explanation of an observation is available one must provisionally choose the one that involves the least number of assumptions’, he saw Occam's razor as one of the great universal principles to which the physical world conforms. Re-expressed, the principle becomes: In physics the minimum assumption always constitutes the true generalisation.
I attended meetings of the Society during 1960 at the Northampton College of Advanced Technology, but was obliged to let my membership lapse when I left the London area. It was during this brief period of personal acquaintance that my sense of the importance of Kapp’s ideas, which I had gained from his written work, was reinforced.
One of his central themes is the distinction between a monistic as opposed to a dualistic view of the universe, and it is a summary of this that I wish to present next.
3. Summary of Kapp’s basic premise
1. That which exercises control cannot exert a force, and that which exerts a force cannot exercise control.
Diathetes perform the one function (control), and matter the other (exerting a force). They can never change places or do each other’s jobs.
2. Matter behaves chaotically when left to itself.
Matter unaided can never create, it can only shake down into stable structures. Things do not happen in the inorganic world for any purpose; they just happen.
3. Mechanism is untenable in explaining the behaviour of living substances because the unco-ordinated pushes and pulls exerted by matter on matter cannot produce the co-ordinated effects observable in the organic world.
4. Conclusion: Matter, left to itself, cannot produce organic forms.
4. The monistic versus dualistic view
Kapp uses the word monism in an exclusively materialist way. In this sense the monistic view of the universe is that matter/energy is the only active reality.
The dualistic view does not regard matter/energy as the only active agent. It holds that there is also a non-material part which influences the course of events. There are, in short, both physical and non-physical causes.
Matter is energy and everything that can transmit energy. Matter is everything with location.
A monist is one who believes that the whole of reality has location.
A dualist is one who believes that a part of reality, of active reality capable of influencing the course of material events, lacks location.
In other words some events are doubly determinate, with material and non-material causes.
A non-material influence Kapp terms a diathete.
The general term diathesis is the process of disposing things to the requirements of a specification. (dia - at intervals, tithenai - to place)
A monist sees the brain as the originator of plans.
A dualist does not believe that the brain or any material system can originate a plan. For him the brain is an instrument by means of which a plan, originated by means of a diathete, becomes manifest.
A teleological event is one that serves a purpose. Such an event embraces past, present, and future.
Kapp offers the trivial example of posting a letter:
1. There is the vis a tergo: the push or force which propels a letter into the pillar-box. The push or pull are always from the past.
2. There is the plan or intention that the letter will reach the address. What is expected to happen in the future is significant.
Hence a teleological event is doubly determinant; it has two sets of causes to produce a specified order:
1. An initial act (vis a tergo)
2. A purpose or anticipation.
The course of events in a game of patience is fully determined by the sequence of cards in the pack and the rules of the game. Hence what happens is singly determinate. Materialists say that vital processes are analogous to such card games. Vitalists say that they are analogous to a game of chess in which the strategies of the game cannot be derived from the rules of chess.
Kapp’s argument that living things are doubly-determinate (analogous to a game of chess and not a game of patience) is similarly expressed by Michael Polanyi in his hierarchy of levels, each subsuming the lower ones but adding new manifestations:
‘No level can gain control over its own boundary conditions and hence cannot bring into existence a higher level, the operations of which would consist in controlling these boundary conditions. Thus the logical structure of the hierarchy implies that a higher level can come into existence only through a process not manifest in the lower level, a process which thus qualifies as an emergence.’
6. Emergent phenomena
A common error, Kapp believed, is to confuse objectivity with subjectivity, and hence to endow inanimate configurations of matter with the innate ability to originate mind-stuff. The mechanist is guilty of circularity in that he borrows analogy from life (felt subjectively) in order to explain life in objective terms.
Kapp argues that an emergent property is a subjective property, and that a ‘resultant’ appears to be nothing but another word for objective property. The properties we call ‘emergent’ are unpredictable because they depend on an observer. He gives an example: when the properties of Hafnium were predicted from what was known of the configuration of its atom at least one thing about it could not be predicted in that way. This was its name. What it would be called depended on something other than its configuration.
7. Specified and unspecified order
Commands, as in the context of a sergeant drilling a squad, underlie anticipation of an end result. The order is recognisable by the regular patterns produced. Organisation implies that in its production the future has provided one of the reasons for the present. A specification is not a description of what is, but of what shall be. A specification exists before the thing which it describes.
Order is not always specified. Chance occurrences, uncontrolled, unguided, unselected, unspecified, may lead to regular pattern, e.g. parallel ridges left by a receding tide; crystalization. Here, only the vis a tergo determines the event. To quote an example from Kapp: Molecules of sodium chloride rushing aimlessly hither and thither are bound to tumble into the well known configuration of a rock salt crystal. The structure of this is no more determined by an element of drill than is the structure of a star or a raindrop.
8. Physical and statute-book law
A minimum assumption can be recognised by the use in its formulation of the words ‘any’ or ‘either’; i.e. any number of planets can occur.
In Kapp’s view there are no restrictive laws in the physical world. The only laws are statistical ones and the only order such as must result from the sum of a large number of completely unco-ordinated happenings. Laws imposed by authority are of the statute-book kind. They demand a specific choice between alternatives all of which are logically possible. In the formulation of such laws the words ‘any’ and ‘either’ may not occur. If they did the law would be meaningless.
In physics a generalisation that is logically possible is also physically possible. It can therefore be represented by an actual example and is so represented with a frequency that is determined by statistical considerations only.
For the physicist there is no such thing as a Cosmic Statute Book.
9. The implications of diathesis in human action
Muscle movement involves the ‘element of drill’.
To cause an event is not necessarily to control it; there is causation with control, and causation without control.
Everything on the afferent side (i.e. sensory data) tends to be uncontrolled. Sensory data do not do any controlling.
The beginning of the path (on the efferent side) along which there is causation with control (diathesis) Kapp calls a primary relay. Primary relays stand at the beginning of all paths (synapse links) of diathesis.
A primary relay must work on a principle quite unlike any with which we are familiar. Kapp’s hypothesis is that the controlled function in a primary diathesis is timing and selection. The diathete selects the relays as well as the moments when they operate. The controlled element of a primary relay receives a random supply of energy. Without the supply of diathesis the flow of energy would be random and not specified.
The conclusion is that an influence without location, a diathete, acting on living substance, causes random forces to produce an ordered result.
In answer to the question: by what sort of mechanism can random forces be caused to produce an ordered result?, Kapp offers the suggestion that the diathete controls the moments of time when a specific atom in a large organic molecule acquires the minimum activating energy. This would be in conformity with the conclusion that the ordered performance of muscles depends on the co-ordinated timing of the primary relays through which the individual muscle fibres are controlled.
10. The universality of diathesis in all living substances
Kapp argues that the beginning of every path for diathesis is in living substance, and is not only associated with mind but also with life. Without its action there can be no control of metabolism, no control of growth, no control of any vital process.
The sort of control that is exercised by the human mind is probably not unique. The structure and behaviour of all living substance is probably subject to the same kind of control by a nonmaterial influence. The process which controls the growth and development of a plant or an animal, Kapp postulates, is a diathesis.
11. Kapp's answer to non-vitalists
The objections which biologist/philosophers have against vitalism are threefold, says Kapp. They consider firstly that there are better alternatives, secondly that there is strong evidence against vitalism, and thirdly that there is no evidence for it.
The first argument in support of this conjecture is that the laws of probability are quite sufficient to account for the structure of living organisms, the second that the process which leads to the formation of living organisms is fundamentally the same as the process which leads to the formation of crystals and is, therefore, entirely due to the unaided action of matter.
Kapp’s position is that in the organic world it is quite legitimate to speak of higher and lower forms of organization, that in this world molecules do not behave aimlessly, and that ‘an element of drill’ is not such a bad way of describing how they do behave. He is opposed to the suggestion that this way of talking can also be applied to the inorganic world. He asserts that when, in the absence of life, molecules rush hither and thither they always do so ‘aimlessly’, and he denies that they ever pursue an aim or conform to an element of drill in any sense of the word.
Kapp’s conjecture is that the instability and complexity of some organic molecules may well be such that Clark Maxwell’s ‘demon’ could introduce large scale disturbances even though he operated on a scale greatly below that given by atomic dimensions.
We have, therefore, he maintains, no right to reject vitalism merely on the grounds that there is not enough latitude in the behaviour of matter to allow non-material influences to be effective.
12. Non-material reality
Kapp cautioned against dismissing the concept of diathesis out of hand. We all tend to make the wrong sort of effort when we try to conceive non-material reality. We begin by imagining some material reality and then we try to think away, one by one, all the attributes attached to it. We are left trying to imagine something which is nothing. Failing to do so we reach the conclusion that there is no such thing as non-material reality.
But it was a mistake to use our imagination. This always represents sense perception. Imagination can never deal with anything other than material reality.
A diathete is unobservable. But it is not undiscoverable. For its existence is proved by its effect on matter. Not by what it is but by what it does do we know it.
In man’s struggle for existence, appreciation of material reality has been a desperate necessity to which some power of appreciating non-material reality has had to be sacrificed. But the sacrifice has not been complete: we do, Kapp insists, possess an instrument which enables us to appreciate non-material reality to some extent; and Bergson has called this instrument ‘intuition’. In our mental processes intelligence and intuition intermingle.
Kapp concludes that the nature of our minds makes it difficult, but not impossible, for every one of us to escape from materialism.
It will be immediately apparent that Kapp’s thought is at odds with currently held views in the life sciences. Matter left alone and ‘to itself’ does, it is generally believed, produce organic forms. Kapp would say that ‘evolution’ as universally conceived, smuggles in the very co-ordinated effects which beg for explanation. He would insist that such effects cannot manifest themselves solely by chance, not even the elaborated model of ‘cumulative selection’ which Richard Dawkins presents.
The materialist/reductionist’s efforts to offer explanation frequently appear to be contrived and contradictory. In order to illustrate this I will make reference to just one of many recent books written in the field of neurobiology: Bright Air, Brilliant Fire by Gerald Edelman. The basic premise of the book is that mind is truly a material phenomenon.
In explaining ‘population thinking’ - individual variance in a population being the source of diversity in which natural selection acts to produce different kinds of organism - he acknowledges that no such idea exists in physics. Evolution works by selection, not by instruction, and he insists there is no final cause, no teleology, no purpose guiding the overall process. Yet of epigenetic events that create form in early embryonic development, Edelman declares that these events must to some extent ‘anticipate’ future interactions.
In the course of enunciating his complex theory of neuronal group selection, re-entry, and global mapping, the language used is entirely what Kapp would term teleological:
1. - Patterns of responses are selected.
2. - Dynamic regulation of CAMs and SAMs.
3. - Activity-dependent matching of connections that is superimposed on neural branches as they explore a developing brain region.
4. - This entire process is a selectional one.
It seems to me that Edelman is giving us a metaphorical description of what may be going on in the brain, with a copious use of subjective language. In other words he is anthropomorphizing molecules. CAMs and SAMs can ‘match’, ‘explore’, ‘co-ordinate’, and ‘regulate’ - all human activities that demand a teleological context in which to make sense of the behaviour.
Edelman refers to individual human beings as having intentionality, memory, and consciousness which enable them to enact plans. But then, as if to reassure himself, he insists that ‘the entire transaction does not involve any unusual piece of physics, but simply the ability to categorize, memorize, and form plans according to a conceptual model.’
Yet the phrase ‘simply the ability’ is an example of the reductionism which at times he is at pains to disavow: ‘To reduce a theory of an individual’s behaviour to a theory of molecular interactions is simply silly’, he asserts.
Edelman appears to be in a cleft stick. He dearly wishes to extend a scientific theory of consciousness based exclusively upon biology, but the more he looks at the behaviour of man the more he has to admit that there is a problem beyond his reach: ‘The workings of the mind go beyond Newtonian causation. The workings of higher-order memories go beyond the description of temporal succession in physics’.
And so we are left wondering: what is this something beyond?
Edelman offers us his theory of neuronal group selection (TNGS) as an answer. This is based upon the notion that brains are selective: ‘Selectional systems, in which matching occurs ex post facto on an already existing diverse repertoire, need no special creations, no homunculus, and no such regress.’.
In other words we select because we select, and ‘the something beyond’ is an added bonus.
Reginald Kapp’s claim to greatness, I believe, is exemplified in his combination of originality of thought, a keen analytical capacity, and an intellectual honesty that would not allow him to sweep ‘the something beyond’ under a vague conceptual carpet.
It has not been possible in this essay to present any of the exciting ideas, such as his quantum theory of gravitation, as presented in his book Towards a Unified Cosmology.
My aim has been to express my debt of gratitude to a bold and innovative scientific mind, and to encourage others to explore some of his ideas which I believe have important contemporary relevance.
1. Reginald O. Kapp: Science versus Materialism, Methuen London 1940
2. Reginald O. Kapp: Mind, Life and Body, Constable 1951
3. Reginald O. Kapp: Towards a Unified Cosmology, 1960
4. Michael Polanyi: The Tacit Dimension, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1967
5. Richard Dawkins: The Blind Watchmaker, Penguin Books 1988
6. Gerald Edelman: Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, Penguin Books 1994